Israeli bests Britney, Rihanna on iTunes

Paris-born Yael Naim first on the iTunes ranking of the most downloaded music of the week.

yael naim 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
yael naim 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In a breakthrough almost too unlikely to be true, an Israeli singer has overtaken pop powerhouses Rihanna and Britney Spears to gain the top spot on one of the music industry's most important sales charts. Yael Naim, a 29-year-old singer born in Paris, claimed the #1 position Wednesday on the iTunes ranking of the most downloaded music of the week, surpassing hits by Spears, Rihanna and hip-hop titan Timbaland to become the first Israeli musician to lead the list. Naim, who immigrated to Israel as a four-year-old, assumed the chart's peak position following a week at #2 with "New Soul," a bouncy English-language number about making sense of "this very strange world." The song bumped to second-place American rap smash "Low," which remains atop the Billboard singles chart. The daughter of Tunisian immigrants to Paris, Naim first drew US attention last month when her now bestselling single was selected by Apple for commercials promoting its MacBook Air laptop. Though the song has yet to crack the Billboard Top 50, it moved quickly onto the iTunes chart, which has gained a reputation for helping non-mainstream music make inroads among audiences less likely to buy CDs in stores. With her unconventional, almost overnight emergence, Naim has also gained notice from musical king-makers including MTV and Spin magazine, with the latter asking on its Web site last month whether the Israeli performer might become the next "superstar." The question - surely music to the ears of Naim's record company - goes on to compare the singer to Feist, the Canadian performer who rocketed into mainstream consciousness last year after Apple featured one of her songs in an ad campaign for the iPod Nano. Since the campaign, the one-time indie artist has sold more than half a million albums, eventually receiving four nominations - including Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Performance - at Sunday's Grammy Awards. A regular at Israeli jazz clubs before her service in the IDF, Naim sings in both English and Hebrew on her latest album, with song titles including "Yashanti" (I Slept), "Shelcha" (Yours) and "Pachad" (Fear). Another song, "Paris," is also performed in Hebrew. With a sound resembling that of Norah Jones, Naim sports a quirky appeal showcased to good effect by "New Soul," which manages to be both wistful and playful as it bounds along to a gentle beat. The song's success has driven up on-line sales of Naim's most recent album, a self-titled 2007 release. The collection currently sits at #9 on the iTunes albums chart, behind compilations by multi-platinum performers Jack Johnson, Tom Petty and Lenny Kravitz. Represented in the US by Atlantic Records, the singer is scheduled to begin a French concert tour at the end of March. The singer previously contributed a song to the French soundtrack of Harrison's Flowers, the 2000 Hollywood drama starring Andie MacDowell and Oscar winner Adrien Brody. The director of the film, Elie Chouraqui, invited Naim to perform on the soundtrack after casting her to play Moses' sister in a French production of The Ten Commandments. Though the singer released her debut album, In a Man's Womb, in 2001, the collection now selling briskly on iTunes is her first to feature songs in Hebrew. Even among non-speakers, songs in the Middle Eastern language are unlikely to be considered the album's most unusual - that distinction should go to a piano-driven cover of "Toxic," the Britney Spears dance hit of a few years back. "You're dangerous - I'm lovin' it," Naim croons, jogging the memory of virtually anyone who paused on a pop radio station in the summer of 2004. Familiar lyrics, certainly, but the accent is something else entirely - clearly Israeli, with a touch of Paris mixed in.